What exactly is “independent bottling?”
Farmers and monasteries have distilled whisky in Scotland and Ireland since at least the 15th century, but commercial distilleries are almost as old. Whisky was localized until merchants like the Walkers, Dewars, and Buchanan began purchasing casks of whisky from distilleries and blending them to create specific flavor profiles. For convenience, we’ll call these merchants blenders, although that is not an industry designation.
Eventually, to guarantee access, many of those blenders bought out the distilleries that produced the whisky they used in their blends . Even so, most of the retail product was a blend of multiple barrels from multiple distilleries. And those blends introduced the world to scotch whisky.
Eventually, after surviving two world wars, the Great Depression, and prohibition in America, brands like Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, and Macallan begin to draw the world’s attention to single malt whisky.
As the spotlight shifted from blends to single malt, a market opportunity emerged: Hand-selected casks with limited releases from prized distilleries. We call the pioneers who took advantage of that opportunity independent bottlers. These companies purchased barrels from existing well-known distilleries and developed small batch releases, often releasing a single barrel at a time.
It was a brilliant combination. If you knew and loved the distillery, you had the chance to try a rare release that was often very different from the standard core lines of your beloved bottlings. And if you fell in love with what was essentially a whisky curator, you could look at their other offerings and discover distilleries you may not have tried or even heard about.
Enter Gordon and MacPhail in the early 1800’s. Their success led to more independent releases. As the tradition grew, the next century brought us names that still stand today, like Cadenhead’s, Berry Bros and Rudd, Adelphi, Signatory, Douglas Laing, Duncan Taylor, and many more.
But simply buying someone else’s whiskey doesn’t make you an independent bottler. There are a few key markers of independent bottlers in the UK that separate them from blenders, all of which involve transparency. First, the brand of the distillery and the bottler are both clearly announced on the bottle. For example, Signatory has its own branding, but they still display the origin distillery prominently on the front label. It’s truly a cooperative effort. You will often find more detail, such as the bottle count and barrel aging details and you’re likely to experience cask strength whisky (or close to it) without filtering or coloring.
An independent bottler is one of the best sources for unique releases from your favorite distillery.
Blending vs Sourcing
Unfortunately, the tradition didn’t carry over to America. True, America has a long and storied history with brands releasing whisky distilled by others. As far back as the late 1800s, Garvin Brown was purchasing whiskey from distillers, blending barrels together, and creating a brand that is still one of the strongest bourbon brands in the world, Old Forester.
But it was never recognized in the same way as Gordon and MacPhail celebrated scotch. The American approach is closer to Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker: sourcing whiskey, blending for a specific flavor profile, and releasing as a stand-alone brand. In the UK they called it blending or independent bottling. In America it became referred to as non-distiller producers, and it lacked the same prestige.
It’s possible that this situation is loosely connected to America’s troubled history with rectifiers. In the US, rectifiers were people who took whiskey produced by distilleries and “rectified” it by changing it, adding flavoring, adding herbs, or even doctoring it into different products entirely. Sometimes the resulting product was good whiskey under another brand name, but just as often it was doctored to the point of being unrecognizable or even being dangerous to consume. Rectifiers were largely responsible for the backlash that prompted the Bottled-in-Bond act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug act of 1906.
Consequently, in America, sourcing whisky for any reason often results in a dubious response from whiskey aficionados. If you don’t make it yourself, do you have any right to claim it as your own? Can you be proud of it?
This is an affectation particular to America, and the attitude is exacerbated by the fact that so many producers in recent years have outright lied or obfuscated the truth about their own whiskey. How many times have we seen brands talk about “the generations of family history” or “century old family recipe” or something similar, only to find out they are buying whiskey from another distillery and bottling it as their own?
Too many times.
It’s likely been a limiting factor for transparent independent bottlings in the US.
But that’s changing. As access to whisky from around the world has become easier for whisky lovers, more and more consumers are discovering independent bottlers, and the US is among them. They’re garnering awards, introducing people to new distilleries, creating new products, and doing it all with honesty, integrity, and transparency.
It’s about damn time.
More companies are beginning to feature independent releases of American craft whiskey in the US, including The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, Single Cask Nation, Lost Lantern, and others. Most of them have their origins in bottling Scottish whiskey, but as the American craft and whiskey movement grows, they are expanding their offerings.
Independent bottlers are whiskey curators.
Start looking for them.
Start tasting what they taste.
Fall in love with their palates and choices.
Discover the distilleries they feature.
It’s the golden age of whiskey drinking.
Step up and grab a glass.
Crowded Barrel Whiskey Co